Special Reports

Wichita Visioneers tour Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. —Be patient. Develop a plan and follow it through. Get private industry involved as much and as often as you can. Those were the main themes repeated by Louisville officials in a whirlwind day of speakers and tours for the Visioneering Wichita group, which is here until Wednesday examining its downtown and waterfront revitalization and economic development.

In all, the group of 50 business, academic, civic and government leaders heard presentations from six officials and toured six sites and companies: the Muhammad Ali Center; a redeveloped portion of downtown called West Main Street; the Glassworks mixed-use building; the headquarters of health insurance giant Humana; the Louisville Slugger Museum; and 21C, a contemporary art museum and hotel on West Main.

The Wichita group is particularly interested in how Louisville implemented its plan for redevelopment now that Wichita has a master plan in hand on how to redevelop its downtown.

A can-do attitude

Five-term Mayor Jerry Abramson was the first of the day's speakers and his message resonated with Ray Frederick Jr., a Wichita businessman and interim president of the Wichita Area Technical College.

"It was a very strong message of the importance of partnerships, relationships with business and industry," Frederick said.

Abramson said when he first took office in the late 1980s, the city was somewhat complacent when it came to tackling projects important to growth.

"Louisville has a can-do attitude that didn't exist when I was elected," he said.

He said the city's downtown did not resemble the busy, active hub he remembered while growing up there in the 1950s. That was the reason for refocusing on downtown and the part of downtown that sits along the Ohio River.

He said it was key to rally those companies already downtown to support a revitalization effort in the city's core, including paying for the master plan.

"Every project has a cheerleader for it," Abramson said. "So our business leadership really took it seriously to be good corporate citizens. You've got to have the business community to support your efforts.

"It's those major corporations that are still downtown that want downtown to flourish."

Sticking to that plan was necessary because it took more than a decade to show signs of life.

"Those things don't come overnight,'' Abramson told the group.

Revitalizing downtown wasn't undertaken solely for the sake of benefiting the city's core. The effort — as well as one to redevelop the riverbank along the Ohio River and create a system of parks and recreational areas — was more about economic development.

Quality of life

Abramson said in his two decades as mayor, quality of life has become an increasingly significant factor when recruiting companies to relocate to Louisville.

"What I now find in the economic development field is that decision makers ask me about the parks," Abramson said. "Decision makers ask me about the opera and the ballet. Decision makers ask me about the neighborhoods."

A key person in implementing the master plan was Barry Alberts, managing partner of CityVision Associates, an urban planning and design firm, and the former executive director of Louisville's Downtown Development Corp.

Alberts said the "spoils of success" of Louisville's 15-year-old downtown master plan have only begun to be realized in the past five or six years.

That plan included widening the sidewalks along West Main, taking out a lane of traffic on the street, and adding points of interest along the sidewalks, such as markers in the sidewalk telling the history of a particular building as well as decorative tree guards designed by a consortium of 13 to 15 local artists.

Living in the core

The master plan also calls for increasing residential living in Louisville's core, which currently has about 1,200 residential units.

One of those residential areas is in the Glassworks building, a multi-use building developed by Bill Weyland.

The building includes leasable office space, 33 residential apartments ranging from 900 to 2,700 square feet, as well as a glass museum and glass-making ventures. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s the city had as many as seven glass factories.

Weyland said the difficulty in financing the residential portion of the project was overcome through several banks' participation in a housing fund that provided about $500,000 in gap financing. The whole Glassworks project totaled about $10 million, he said.

No grocery store

Of particular interest to the Wichita group was the absence of any grocery store downtown to support residential living.

"I think the grocery thing... is a little overblown," Weyland said.

He said people who choose to live in an urban environment consider themselves "urban pioneers" and as such will find the items they need to support their household among the collection of smaller retail stores located in the city's core.

Like Abramson and Alberts, Weyland cautioned against rushing into things when it comes to downtown development.

"It takes patience," he said. "It takes long-term thinking."

At the day's final presentation, Greater Louisville CEO Joe Reagan said his group — which serves as the metropolitan area's chamber of commerce — looks at tackling problems from a regional, rather than a Louisville-centric, perspective.

"I'm convinced the challenges before our region are stronger than any one community can solve," he said.

Reagan also said the region has been successful in convincing 14 companies to relocate their headquarters to the Louisville area since 2005.

Today, the Wichita Visioneering group will hear presentations on tourism and more about downtown revitalization, including tours of Louisville's Fourth Street Live entertainment district and its new, 22,000-seat KFC Yum Arena.

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